How you feel about the end of the Las Vegas Aces 2019 season likely depends on what kind of expectations you had for the Las Vegas Aces heading into the 2019 season.
After trading for Liz Cambage, a good percentage of WNBA fans annointed the Aces as the title favorites. If you were among those people, you surely felt that this team underachieved.
But many of us thought that the first year of the Cambage and A’ja Wilson pairing wasn’t going to immediately be the best team in the WNBA, that it would take time for things to gel together and that the team’s lack of veteran experience — remember, Wilson, Jackie Young, and Kelsey Plum are the past three number-one overall picks, so this is still an incredibly young team — and the struggles of pairing two post players on a team that already didn’t shoot much was going to lead to a year that saw them be successful, but not reach the pinnacle of the sport.
In that scenario, you probably feel pretty good about the 2019 Aces. Despite A’ja Wilson missing time, Vegas finished 21-13, good for the fourth seed in the playoffs. That got them a first round bye, which led to them facing the Chicago Sky in a single elimination game in the second round, which led to this:
— NBA TV (@NBATV) September 16, 2019
Vegas ultimately fell in four games to the eventual champion Washington Mystics.
Let’s dig deeper into their season.
What Went Right For Vegas
The pairing of Liz Cambage and A’ja Wilson was supposed to be the league’s best front court, and while things weren’t perfect, the Aces having both players available worked out well.
While the Aces struggled some offensively with both players on the floor (more on that later), they had a defensive rating of 94.89 when they shared the floor. It’s worth noting that the best defensive rating in the WNBA last year belonged to the Aces at 95.0, so that lineup played a huge role in making that happen.
Individually, lineups with Cambage on the floor and Wilson off the floor were wildly good, posting a 9.24 net rating in 378 minutes. Acquiring Liz Cambage worked, because it gave Vegas an interior presence when Wilson sat.
What else went right? The emergence of Dearica Hamby. The fifth-year forward took a major leap forward this year, averaging 11 points and 7.6 rebounds per game as the team’s primary sixth woman. To be a good team, you need production from players you weren’t expecting it from, and I’m pretty sure that no one outside of the Aces front office expected Hamby to do what she did this season. She developed into the kind of “do everything” player that good teams have to have. The team had a net rating of 8.4 when Hamby was on the floor. That plummeted to -2.68 when she was off the floor. There’s not much else to say about that except “wow.”
Kayla McBride shot 43% from three. Rookie and first overall pick Jackie Young struggled scoring-wise, but developed into a solid passing point guard as the year went on.
What Went Wrong For Vegas
But look, a lot of people thought this Aces team was going to win it all. Why didn’t they?
Well, the easiest answer is this: they went up against the powerhouse Washington Mystics team in the playoffs, a historically good team that featured Elena Delle Donne. Hard to beat that.
But that matchup does show us more if we dig deeper. The Mystics really epitomize the new era of basketball. Despite finishing last in the WNBA in frequency of shots at the rim, the team still had a higher percentage of their shots come either at the rim or from three than the Aces. Vegas was last in that combined play type.
The Aces have Liz Cambage and A’ja Wilson, yet they ranked just fifth in the WNBA in frequency of shots at the rim. That’s just…unacceptable. Too much focus on the midrange game and not enough on working your two elite interior players into the paint and getting easy looks was a big part of why this offense never reached the heights it could have.
The other reason? Three-point shooting. Vegas has some shooters, but they take fewer threes than anyone in the league. When you face a team like Washington that has the ability to get hot from outside and put any game away, you can’t get away with Vegas’ shot profile. Talent matters, but the utilization of that talent matters more, and the Aces have to figure something out about that. Maybe try to keep three shooters around Cambage and Wilson at all times?
The Wilson/Cambage pairing was often a struggle offensively because teams the spacing that lineup creates isn’t great. Add Jackie Young’s shooting issues into things, and you see that lineups featuring those three players together had an offensive rating of 95.12. Bill Laimbeer needs to think more about who plays with his two bigs moving forward if he wants to get this team a WNBA title.
All in all, though, this was a successful year for an Aces team that came together at the last moment and had to figure out how to make Cambage and Wilson co-exist with their often overlapping skill sets. Aces fans should be encouraged heading into the 2020 season, though finding another shooter would be a good offseason move if this team wants a more modernized offensive approach to try to keep up with teams like Washington.